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By sparing the ‘tup’, you tell your child violence isn’t a way to control. Photo: Thinkstock
By sparing the ‘tup’, you tell your child violence isn’t a way to control. Photo: Thinkstock

One tight slap

A smack, however effective, sends the message that you deserve to be hit by someone you love and trust

The girls in my school all had children before I did, so by the time mine came along, they considered themselves expert mothers, and were very free with their advice. I listened to them, because they are in fact expert mothers, with lovely children. But we never did agree on the spanking issue. And we still don’t.

Before I ever had a child, I watched other mothers dole out “one tight slap" or worse with depressing regularity. It’s part of our culture and in this instance my immediate family, where we did not get hit, was an outlier. My cousins got whacked. My school friends got whipped. I saw my math tutor’s daughter throw her father’s belt out of the window as a prophylactic measure after a poor report card. They were hit; I was not; we all seem to have grown up and turned out reasonably all right. So why am I so repelled by the thought of spanking my child?

It’s not just about the evidence, which is certainly compelling. A recent Brookings Institution report, “Hitting Kids: American Parenting And Physical Punishment", states: “Children spanked frequently and/or severely are at higher risk for mental health problems, ranging from anxiety and depression to alcohol and drug abuse, according to some research studies.... There is also robust evidence of an increased incidence of aggression among children who are regularly spanked. A 2002 meta-analysis of 27 studies across time periods, countries, and ages found a persistent association: children who are spanked regularly are more likely to be aggressive, both as a child and as an adult…children may learn to associate violence with power or getting one’s own way."

Despite all this, 19 states in the US still allow corporal punishment in schools. A lot of people think it works. A 2010 literature review on spanking in The American Journal Of Family Therapy found that “children need discipline and the judicial use of corporal punishment could be effectively utilized by parents". Well, show me all the research you want either way, but I still don’t believe in spanking. If it works, that’s even worse than if it doesn’t work. Who wants to control the person you love most through violence?

I know an Indian father who actually went and complained to his son’s teacher that she wasn’t hitting the boy enough, and she should step up and do her job. Almost all my parents’ generation, and most of my own, encountered physical punishment ranging from spanking to severe beatings at some point.

I’ve talked to people who believe that “a little sensible ‘tup’ is harmless and effective. So what if I use that as a punishment? It’s better than yelling abusive things". What a choice. Yes, smacking might be less hurtful than sustained verbal deriding, but is either necessary to raise a child?

I’m not a perfect mother. Ask my child and she’ll agree. I’ve made many mistakes. But I’ve never hit my child, and I hope I never will. The thing is, I don’t buy the “little sensible ‘tup’" theory. If I ever hit her, it will not be because I coolly decided that W amount of force on X body part for Y amount of time is the appropriate response to Z. If I ever hit her, it will be because I lost control.

What message does hitting children give about domestic violence? How stupid would I sound if, after smacking my child for some transgression, I turned around and told her that when she grows up, no man should ever hit her for any reason, and violence is not an acceptable way to negotiate the terms of a relationship? If I did give her that one tight slap, she would probably grow up relatively unscathed anyway, in the context of an otherwise loving household. But even if she didn’t hold it against me, I would forever hold it against myself. And when fathers hit children, they’re also letting their sons and daughters know that violence is a suitable way to exert authority and control.

When my daughter was just a toddler, she did something, I can’t even remember what, and was banished to her room at the other end of the house. She wailed in outrage and fear, and I lurked outside the door for the allotted 5 minutes. Mati, our Adivasi friend, walked over and said, “Why are you being so cruel? Leaving her alone like that…it’s very bad. We would never do that to our children."

“So what would you do?" I asked.

“We’d just beat them and then forget about it."

Who knows—maybe a smack would have been less cruel than the time-out in the bedroom. But the smack, however effective, would send the message that you deserve to be hit by someone you love and trust. That’s not the message I want to send.

Another time, also when she was a toddler, I got really frustrated. It’s the frustration you mothers out there will understand. The frustration of looking into this little person’s eyes, this little person whom you would gnaw your arm off to save, this little person who just won’t listen and is deliberately doing the one thing guaranteed to send you into an infuriated frenzy. The frustration of realizing that your dream has come true: You’ve produced a human being who is not going to do what you want her to do. In a rage, I said, “You do that again, and I will slap you!"

She burst into giggles, cuddled up, and said with utter confidence, “Oh Amma, you know you would never do that!"

And that, my friends, was one of the greatest moments of my parenthood.

Sohaila Abdulali is a New York-based writer. She writes a fortnightly column on women in the 21st century.

Also Read Sohaila’s previous Lounge columns

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